County rejects Jackson offer on taxes

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

The actual words used Monday were carefully chosen, but the message sounded like the prelude to a neighborhood rumble: If you want our $80,000 per year, you're going to have to fight us for it.

And so the road and bridge tax debate took a critical step as the three Cape Girardeau County commissioners, sitting in the county building two blocks from city hall, dared the city of Jackson to take them to court.

"I move that we don't join hands," said Commissioner Joe Gambill when making his motion rejecting Jackson's final offers. "If they feel the money is theirs, they can file a petition."

Gambill promised the county would defend its position "vigorously."

Commissioner Larry Bock seconded the motion without comment, and the commission voted unanimously on the topic despite having virtually no open discussion in official meetings since Jackson Mayor Paul Sander met with Presiding Commissioner Gerald Jones and Bock on Wednesday.

The Jackson Board of Aldermen, in an announced closed meeting last week, gave Mayor Paul Sander the authority to move ahead with litigation.

But before filing a petition, the city offered the county two other options: The city and county could reach a financial settlement or they could both ask for a Missouri Supreme Court judgment. Monday's motion rejected those options.

Jones said Monday that Jackson's financial settlement offer included having the revenue go into a transportation development district associated with the East Main Street extension project at Interstate 55.

After Monday's motion, city officials reinforced their stance that Jackson will petition the Supreme Court on its own to see whether the city is entitled to county revenue for roads and bridges within the city limits. Most first-class counties reimburse their cities, and this is a case that has already drawn statewide attention.

The conflict boils down to this: Jackson says that state law requires counties to reimburse cities 25 percent of the road and bridge tax that is collected from town residents. Part of the county's claim is that the 25 percent rule only applies to special taxes which require voter approval.

The amount of money at stake is roughly $80,000 per year and hundreds of thousands of dollars in back payments.

On Monday, Sander announced for the first time that the city would go after back payments.

"If this is the way the county wants it to be, we will pursue everything owed to us through state statutes, no more, no less," Sander said.

If the court rules in Jackson's favor, the county could owe the city revenue dating back to Jan. 1, 1997, when the county bumped up to first class, a status based on total assessed valuation within the county.

County auditor David Ludwig said the exact amount of money hasn't been calculated and there may be a five-year limit on what the city could collect, if it won its case.

County prosecutor Morley Swingle did not return a phone call Monday to address that issue.

Jackson city attorney Tom Ludwig said the statute of limitations is a concern that will be addressed, but he did not yet know if it would apply.

Sander said he was disappointed in the commission's stance and had hoped that the two entities could have petitioned the Supreme Court together. He said a united front would have given the issue a higher priority with the court, and the matter might have been resolved more quickly.

Should the county win in court, it would be a landmark decision, one that could change the way many first-class counties operate. Twelve of the 14 first-class counties in the state reimburse cities at least some portion of taxes into the cities from which they collect. Cape Girardeau and Callaway counties are the only first-class counties which collect a road and bridge property tax and do not pay cities back 25 percent.

Callaway County is putting back money in escrow until the matter here is resolved.

The city of Jackson, Cape Girardeau County and Cole County sought the attorney general's opinion in February. The attorney general sided with Jackson, but the commissioners said it was just one attorney's opinion.

Cole County accepted the opinion and settled a similar dispute with Jefferson City.

bmiller@semissourian.com

243-6635

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